Florida Bill Shields VOIP from Local Regulation


Deeming the promotion of voice-over-Internet protocol telephony to be in the public interest, the Florida Legislature passed a bill May 2 to protect the technology from regulation by state utility regulators or local governments.

Another piece of the telecom reform measure — approved by a wide margin by both chambers of the legislature — also protects broadband services from local regulation.

Hands off, cities

Cable lobbyists expect this language to keep city officials from mimicking high-speed data customer service standards now under consideration in other jurisdictions.

Also, municipal cable regulators can't suggest service fees or other data-related concessions in refranchise negotiations, said Steve Wilkerson, president of the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association.

One of the first beneficiaries of this language could be Comcast Corp., which is negotiating a for a new franchise with Miami city officials.

Oversight of origination and termination fees will still be in the hands of the state Public Service Commission or the Federal Communications Commission, lobbyists added. The state body will also have injunctive authority to act quickly on demonstrated anti-competitive behavior. The bill also directs the use of expedited hearings (within 120 days).

The pro-cable language is part of a rewrite of a reform bill enacted in the state in 1995. It has drawn great public attention — and some ire — as it was one of the last bills approved by the state legislature before its leadership bowed to the tradition of "dropping the handkerchief" to close the session at its constitutional sunset.

Consumer advocates are highly critical of the legislature for failing to pass a budget reconciliation bill or address medical funding for poor families while instead debating and approving legislation that will raise phone bills.

This reform reverses the standard operating procedure in Florida, which used high access fees for long-distance calls as a subsidy to keep local phone rates low. State analysts estimate the reform will raise local phone bills by $3.50 to $7.25 per month.

Telephony providers may be able to raise rates 20% a year, if they satisfy service targets.

"As one of my colleagues said, this vote was not along party lines, it was along contribution lines," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. Organizations such as FCAN were able to convince Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to veto a similar telecom reform package last year.

Bush backs it

Other consumer groups opposing approval this year are the Consumer's Union, the Florida Public Interest Research Group, the American Association of Retired Persons and state social welfare groups.

They are mounting a grass-roots e-mail campaign to try to convince Bush not to sign the bill. But Newton concedes the opponents have little chance of swaying the governor.

"The governor said in advance he will sign it, no matter what. The money is in, it's a non-election year … unfortunately, that's the way it looks," the advocate said.

A legal challenge is unlikely, he added.

But the public backlash could aid cable in its telephony rollout. Letters to the editor in Florida papers take note of Verizon Communications Inc.'s high visibility support for the reform bill, and consumers have vowed to retaliate.

Bush is expected to sign the reform bill this month.